My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now further considered on Report.
My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 11. These two amendments deal with school improvement partners. We had a lengthy debate about this matter in Committee. During that debate, we established that, although appointments are nominally by the Secretary of State, local authorities will be responsible for appointing local school improvement partners to schools in their areas with the exceptions of academies, city technology colleges and city colleges for the technology of the arts. A school improvement partner will be primarily accountable to the employing local authority. Accreditation will be through the National College for School Leadership, which will share with local authorities responsibility for the training and continuous professional development of school improvement partners.
We also established that school improvement partners will be expected to spend about five days a year working with the schools with which they are partnered, but typically a SIP may have three or four schools under its wings and therefore give an average of something like 19 days a year to the job. They would be paid by local authorities, which would no longer have to fund the link adviser. So the extra money that the Government are putting into the system—some £21 million—is on top of the £7 million already spent on link advisers by local education authorities. Therefore, the rate of pay is somewhat greater than the back-of-the-envelope calculation put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, which meant that they would get little more than school dinner ladies, £6.50 an hour—I think it goes up a little but not that much.
Nevertheless, doubts have remained about the funding of school improvement partners: how much will local authorities have to pay to encourage former head teachers out of the retirement bunker, and how could and should the possible conflicts between heads and school improvement partners be resolved? However, today's amendment does not address either of those concerns. Instead it addresses what in many respects is a minor issue about which the Minister spoke en passant in the previous debate; namely, the relationship between local authorities, academies, city technology colleges and city colleges for the technology of the arts in relation to SIPS.
In one of the amendments that we tabled in Committee, we suggested that local authorities should be responsible for appointing all school improvement partners including those to academies and city technology colleges. The Minister responded very firmly. In law, those are independent state schools and, therefore, we feel it would be inappropriate for local authorities to appoint their improvement partners. That is not to say that the external accountability of those publicly funded schools is any less important.
The two amendments that we have tabled today do not question the fact that the Secretary of State will appoint school improvement partners; however, we ask that the reports made by school improvement partners should be made available to local education authorities. At present, school improvement partners for academies, city technology colleges, and so forth, report only to the Secretary of State. We put this amendment forward on behalf of the LGA, which believes that if councils are to fulfil their proposed new strategic role, which includes ensuring the education potential of all children in their areas, that must include children attending academies and other centrally directed and funded schools.
The performance of those schools will be reflected in the education element of the local authorities' annual performance assessments. If local authorities are genuinely to champion children's educational well-being, the school improvement partner reports for academies and city technology colleges should be copied to their authorities so that they can be challenged and assisted, as provision would be for any parent or child locally. The school improvement partner reports cover all the Every Child Matters outcomes, for which a local authority is responsible for delivering to parents and children. Lack of information about the performance and the needs of the academies could lead to inappropriate or inadequate conclusions being drawn about other neighbouring schools and the authority-wide improvement needs of the children.
This is a very modest amendment asking only that local education authorities should have a copy of the reports delivered by school improvement partners to the Secretary of State in their function as being answerable to the Secretary of State. I hope that the Minister will look sympathetically on it. I beg to move.
My Lords, as the noble Baroness has said, Amendments Nos. 10 and 11 are wholly unnecessary for maintained schools. School improvement partners of those schools work under contract to the relevant local education authority and it is inconceivable for the contract not to provide for the sending of reports to the authority as client. Therefore, no specific statutory requirement is needed.
In respect of the other schools that Amendment No. 11 would class as relevant, academies, as the noble Baroness said, are accountable directly to the DfES for performance. Accordingly, their school improvement partners are contracted to the DfES, but because we are introducing the school improvement partners programme nationally, we regarded it as equally important that the programme should apply to academies too. School improvement partners of academies work in broadly the same way as those of maintained schools, share the same national support arrangements and are subject to the same national accreditation requirements.
Amendment No. 10 would introduce a statutory requirement into these non-statutory arrangements. It would require SIPs of all relevant schools to send copies of any reports they make to the relevant local education authority. The Government obviously want co-operation across each local authority area among schools of all types listed in Amendment No. 11, but statute is not necessary for this purpose. There is, for example, a local authority representative on the governing body of every academy, and that representation is specified in the academy's articles of association. The local authority therefore has a means to secure those reports, even if they are not directly made available. The noble Baroness's aims are therefore adequately secured.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply, but it would be more satisfactory if there were a statutory responsibility. You could rely on the informal links through having a councillor sitting on the governing body of the academy or city technology college, but you would be relying on informal links. One would hope that, in these circumstances, the school improvement partner would see the local authority as one of the partnership groups to which it would naturally send the report.
This is an extremely modest amendment, merely asking that local authorities should have a chance to see these reports. I cannot see why the Minister is not prepared to concede the point. However, we will think about it and conceivably bring it back at Third Reading. I am not totally happy with the Minister's answer—it is not satisfactory—but I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
[Amendment No. 11 not moved.]
Clause 7 [Invitation for proposals for establishment of new schools]:
[Amendments Nos. 12 and 13 not moved.]
Clause 8 [Proposals under section 7 relating to community or community special schools]:
[Amendment No. 14 not moved.]
Clause 10 [Publication of proposals with consent of Secretary of State]:
[Amendment No. 15 not moved.]
Schedule 2 [Proposals for establishment or discontinuance of schools in England]:
[Amendment No. 16 not moved.]
moved Amendment No. 17:
Page 133, line 5, after "12" insert ", sections 15 and 16"
My Lords, this group of government amendments relates to minor school organisation matters and parent councils. I have written to noble Lords setting out their effect in detail.
To summarise, Amendment No. 17 is a technical adjustment to the provisions in Schedule 2, to make clear that among the provisions of the Bill that may be modified by regulations providing for the promoter to be relieved of the duty to implement approved proposals are the provisions dealing with closing schools as well as those relating to opening them.
Amendments Nos. 18 and 19 remove the exemption for land which is defined as publicly funded under the provisions of Schedule 4. They avoid double jeopardy on this claim for proceeds of disposal by ensuring that these provisions have force only after the disposal provisions of Schedule 22 to the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, as amended by this Bill, have been applied.
Amendment No. 25 corrects an omission from the wording of the Bill. It provides that regulations made under Clause 24, affecting alterations to schools, may make provision corresponding to that made in regulations under paragraphs 21 to 31 of Schedule 2, as well as that made in Schedule 2 itself.
Amendment No. 34 is similarly technical. The Secretary of State has a power to modify trust deeds relating to foundation, voluntary and foundation special schools in connection with the operation of the provisions of the 1998, 2000 and 2002 Education Acts. This amendment gives the Secretary of State the same power in relation to the provisions of this Bill. Amendments Nos. 20, 35, 36 and 37 update the reference to "promoters" in the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, to take account of the fact that provisions of that Act continue in Wales, but are replaced by the provisions of this Bill in England.
On Amendments Nos. 41 to 44, in Committee, the right reverend Prelates the Bishop of Peterborough and the Bishop of Southwell reminded us that there are situations where parents might find it helpful to invite people other than parents of current pupils on to the parent council. These amendments allow that to happen. However, we want parents to take ownership of the parent council, so parent members must consent to the appointment of a non-parent member, and member and parent members of registered pupils must always be the majority on the parent council. Many schools already have successful parent councils with some non-parent members. We do not want to upset arrangements that are already working well or prevent people making a valuable contribution to their local school because they do not currently have a child at that school, hence these amendments. I beg to move.
My Lords, as the Minister mentioned the point I raised in Committee, I shall say simply that we are very grateful to him and his officials for introducing Amendments Nos. 41 to 44, which substantially address the points we raised. I am grateful that they will enable representatives of the community, including representatives of local churches in the case of faith schools, to be members of parent councils without dominating the council in the way he indicated. I am very grateful.
moved Amendment No. 21:
Page 14, line 3, at end insert-
"( ) a reduction in the proportion of elected parent governors on a school's governing body"
My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 21, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 39 and 40. Amendment No. 21 prevents a foundation reducing the current statutory level of elected parent governors on the board of a school when it becomes a foundation. Power in a school resides in the governing body, not in the parent councils that the Government are introducing. The governors have legal powers, which is why we think it is important—to the Government's agenda, as well as ours—to involve parents in the education of their children in a meaningful way and not to reduce the number of parents freely and democratically elected by other parents to take part in decision-making about the running of the school.
The House will realise that this amendment is a repeat of an amendment we tabled in Committee, and we have returned it because we are not satisfied with the Government's reasons for rejecting it. In Committee, the Minister said:
"The model of governance that we propose for parents is precisely that which currently applies in many thousands of voluntary-aided schools, which are perfectly adequately managed within the state system".—[Hansard, 18/7/06; col. 1231.]
He went on to say how popular such schools are. I have no doubt of that, but we are dealing with a step-change in the number of schools that he proposes should be governed in this way. There are currently only 4,288 voluntary-aided primary and secondary schools in England and Wales, and the Government are hoping that many thousands of the remaining maintained schools will enthusiastically take up their invitation to become foundation schools. Currently, one can expect a certain amount of homogeneity and consensus of opinion in the parent body of a voluntary-aided school because the members usually share a faith or an ethos of some sort and there may not be a diversity of approach about how the school is run. We cannot say that that will necessarily be the case with the new foundation schools. What currently works for a few thousand faith schools may not work for thousands of schools that change their status under this legislation.
The Minister went on to say that he expects that in many trust schools a minority of the governors will be appointed by the trust. That may well be so, but we cannot rely on that. We need to set a minimum representation of freely elected parents below which a foundation cannot go if we are to be sure that the board of governors will not be stuffed with the trust's placemen and placewomen. What we are asking for is not extreme; it is quite modest and is that the current level of representation is at least maintained. I cannot see the Minister's problem with that.
I turn now to Amendments Nos. 39 and 40. When my noble friend Lady Sharp introduced these amendments in Committee about our concept of schools working together in a community trust she received a fairly encouraging response from the Minister. He said:
"If she means trusts that have local authority engagement within the provisions of the Bill as it stands, they absolutely can. We will give strong encouragement to local authorities to be engaged in trusts alongside other local community groups and organisations which can make a substantial contribution to improving schools".—[Hansard, 18/7/06; col. 1133.]
However, later he said:
"The 20 per cent level for local authority engagement in trusts, as set out in the Bill, gives local authorities the flexibility to play a valuable role in brokering those relationships and supporting the formation of trusts in their communities. The 20 per cent figure is also consistent with provisions in local government legislation about local authority involvement in companies and trusts more widely.
However, we do not believe that it is right to increase that proportion beyond 20 per cent, which will get close to making local authorities the dominant force in a trust. If a local authority wishes to have that level of control over a trust, it anyway has the option of promoting a community school and exercising this control directly".—[Hansard, 18/7/06; col. 1134.]
That reply very effectively revealed the Government's attitude to local authorities.
Perhaps I may take in order the points made by the Minister. First, he talked about 20 per cent being the normal level of involvement of local authorities in companies and trusts more widely. We are not talking about an ordinary company, such as might be set up to enhance local job opportunities or economic development, but of a school into whose hands we put the future of our children. These need to be accountable to the whole community. They do that through the local authority and through the ballot box.
Secondly, the Minister does not want a local authority to be the dominant force in a trust. Why not? It represents the local people—current and future parents of the school. Have not many local authorities demonstrated their very high level of expertise in running successful schools over the years? Are we to throw away all this expertise? I can understand that poor performing local authorities are not desirable partners, but to leave the provision only to the top performing ones is going too far.
Thirdly, the Minister talks about the opportunities for local authorities to promote community schools. He knows that the Government have stacked the odds against the ability of local authorities to open new community schools. They have to jump through all sorts of hoops that others do not have to negotiate, such as achieving top rating on an inspection. Indeed, the ability of the best local authorities to open new schools at all was introduced into the Bill in another place in response to Labour rebels and their serious concerns about trust schools.
The Government have once again demonstrated their control-freakery. They do not trust the ballot box and they do not trust local authorities, even their own, to run schools any more. They may have some justification regarding some of the worst authorities, but in tackling that problem they are throwing out the baby with the bath water. They are removing the influence of vast numbers of perfectly competent authorities, which in turn are answerable to the electorate at the ballot box for what they do in schools and elsewhere. We are trying to address that matter, as well as the very serious issue well laid out by my noble friend in Committee, and which I will not repeat, that we wish to see more co-operation rather than competition between schools. That is what our concept of community foundation would achieve, and I recommend our amendments to the House. I beg to move.
My Lords, I support the first of these three amendments. I rightly applaud the Government's emphasis on the role of parents in education and in the shape of schools. Amendment No. 21 would give legislative endorsement to that general statement, which I think Members of the House have thoroughly supported. If this provision were not accepted, I would want to know in what circumstances it would be a hindrance to good governance.
My Lords, I, too, support the first amendment. Perhaps I should declare my interest as the president of the National Governors' Association. It and other organisations have serious concerns that the parent governor quota, as it were, would be, if not obliterated completely, certainly diminished in its importance. However keen I am on parents' councils, they do not have anything like the power, authority or responsibility of governors.
I understand the Minister's concern to have competent governors, especially when turning a school around, changing to trust status, and so on but, at the very least, I want maximum assurance from the Government that they will look locally for the skills required to carry out those functions. My preference would be for there still to be that degree of local representation and demonstration of what the community needs to make for a more cohesive environment.
My Lords, I appreciate the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, and the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, about the importance of parents being engaged in schools, including in their governance. I will address that point directly, because the Bill does not diminish the engagement of parents in the governance of schools. The specific issue raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, is whether the proportion of parents required to be on the school governing body should be elected as opposed to being appointed, which they may be in a trust school or a voluntary-aided school as part of the representation of the trust behind the school.
The reason why we have maintained and will continue to maintain their position is that where the trust itself appoints a majority of the governors, it is permissible to diminish the number of elected parent governors because otherwise it is impossible for the trust to appoint a majority. The capacity for a trust to appoint a majority is necessary for the trust to be able to maintain the level of leadership and control over the school that is essential for raising standards. After all, that is precisely the model that applies in voluntary-aided schools at the moment.
The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, largely answered herself. She said that she thought that 4,288 schools was too small a base from which to draw conclusions about successful governance. In all my experience of public policy, there are very few areas in which we have a model that is successfully operating in one in five among the totality of cases. I stress the words "successfully operating". Voluntary-aided schools include a high proportion of the most successful schools in the country. They are not simply Church schools; a number of other trusts are represented among those schools. The noble Baroness argues against a model that works very satisfactorily in 4,288 cases across the country and in which parents feel manifestly engaged in governance—those schools are substantially more oversubscribed than community schools, on average, which is the acid test of whether parents in the locality think that those schools are successful. It is simply not credible for the noble Baroness to argue on the basis of that successful experience that there is somehow either a danger or a diminishment of local community engagement, including parent engagement, in making the same governance arrangements available to a wider number of schools.
Let me stress that under the Bill, no school will be forced to acquire a trust or to allow the trust to appoint a majority of governors. It will be for the governing body of that school to decide whether it thinks that the benefits that will come from an external partner are worth the transition to trust status. It is the governing body as presently constituted that will make that decision. So no external force is being applied in the matter.
Within acceptable bounds—we believe that the bounds in the Bill are acceptable—we want to extend to schools the freedom to shape their own governance in the way in which voluntary schools and academy schools currently can. Specialist schools, voluntary schools and academies draw enormous benefit from their governance partners—including, I should stress, governors appointed by those relevant sponsors from the community that the school serves—in developing their individual character and ethos. Trust status will allow these opportunities to be available to any school that wants to benefit from them, whether they want to do so individually or collaboratively with other schools.
On Amendments Nos. 39 and 40, we believe that the 20 per cent limit on local authority membership and voting rights in a trust is appropriate. This proportion is consistent with provisions in local government legislation about local authority involvement in companies and trusts. The provisions of the Bill already allow for parents and the local community to form a trust and to involve the local authority in that trust, subject to the 20 per cent limit set out in the Bill. The amendments would mean that a local authority may not be involved in a foundation with partners other than parents and community organisations. This could act perversely as a disincentive to trusts involving the local authority as trust members at all.
In addition, imposing a requirement that the membership of any local authority that is a member of a trust must be precisely 33 per cent, as envisaged in the amendments, would provide the local authority with considerably less flexibility to carry out its role as it sees fit than do the provisions in the Bill. The amendments also prescribe that, where the local authority is involved in a trust, all schools that are part of that trust would be required to federate. We strongly encourage federation and collaboration—indeed, the trust model is intended to add to the options for such partnership-working. As the noble Baroness knows, many successful models of federation are now developing in the state system. We do not believe, however, that these relationships are at their most effective when they are forced on schools.
Just as the community school is not the only category of school at the heart of the community, collaboration and community engagement will not be the exclusive preserve of a trust with this type of membership. We already know of schools that are planning to use trust status to facilitate collaboration. Last month, we published a list of trust pathfinders that showed a very large group of schools seeking collaborative arrangements. Indeed, almost all the proposals set out in the trust pathfinders are for collaborative arrangements between schools. Only a very small number of the trust pathfinders that we have published are for single schools seeking to develop individual trusts. We want to retain the flexibility for trusts to engage in partnerships of that kind, and it is precisely that kind of flexible arrangement that is made possible under the Bill.
The prescriptive amendments tabled by the noble Baroness would limit the opportunity for real collaboration and partnership to grow, and would exclude any local authority from playing a part in the sort of exciting partnership that I have just described.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. I shall say very little about Amendments Nos. 39 and 40, and will concentrate on Amendment No. 21. We tabled Amendments Nos. 39 and 40 again to emphasise our strong commitment to all schools in an area that are working together for the benefit of all the children. We would include all the schools in the area because what happens in any one school always has an impact on other schools in the area, and we do not want there to be any chink that allows any school to become a sink school because of the good things that are happening in another school nearby. They should all be working together. Our vision is co-operation, not competition between schools.
On Amendment No. 21, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland of Houndwood, and the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, for their support. The Minister said many things with which I agree, but I disagreed with his statement that we should rely on what works well in one in five of our schools. What about the other four in five? They are all being governed very successfully in most cases. Failing schools are very much in the minority.
My Lords, none of those schools would be forced to adopt these governance arrangements against its wishes.
My Lords, I appreciate that, but these schools are oversubscribed not because they have two elected parent governors but for much more complex reasons to do with the school ethos and parents' beliefs. As the noble Lord has just said, it is for the governing body to decide, which I appreciate. But we must remember that, where a school is moving to foundation status, it is under pressure from members of the forthcoming foundation and may be over-influenced by what it wants. In order to emphasise our sincere commitment to the meaningful involvement of freely elected parents in the governing bodies of schools, we would like to test the opinion of the House.
My Lords, I shall also speak to Amendments Nos. 23, 24 and 38, concerning the process by which a governing body can propose a switch to foundation trust status from being a community or voluntary-controlled school.
The amendments would give parents in particular but also other stakeholders in a school more say in the process. Amendments Nos. 22, 23 and 24 relate to Clause 22, on the right of the governing body to determine its own foundation proposals. As the clause stands, the governing body could decide by a simple majority. We are very unhappy with that proposal.
Amendment No. 22 seeks that any proposal on a change of status from a community school to a foundation school should be approved by a ballot of the parents of the registered pupils at the school. These amendments were debated at considerable length in Committee. In response to this amendment, moved by my noble friend Lady Williams, the Minister replied—I find this slightly odd—that it would be "disproportionate" to require ballots for a change of trust status. He was encouraged in thinking that a ballot was unnecessary by the noble Lord, Lord Gould, who is not in his place today, and who expressed very interesting sentiments:
"Compulsory ballots are a cumbersome, time-consuming and rather intimidating procedure that is intended to slow down the pace of reform and to make genuine parental participation less likely rather than more".—[Hansard, 18/7/06; col. 1138.]
Earlier in his speech, the noble Lord had said that in polls he had conducted, 72 per cent of parents had shown that they wanted more involvement in schools, but he made it quite clear that ballots were not the way to do it. He said:
"That is not to say that ballots should not be held if the governing body wishes to hold them; but it is to say that one-off compulsory ballots do not help the cause of greater parental empowerment, and are likely to slow it down. One-off compulsory ballots are not genuine participation; they are a device to get in the way of genuine participation, and they should be resisted".—[Hansard, 18/7/06; col. 1138.]
It seems to me that those are not the words of a democrat, and I am very surprised to hear the noble Lord, Lord Gould, express such sentiments.
Is it really disproportionate to ask, as we are doing, for a ballot? Amendment No. 23 asks for a two-thirds majority of the governing body rather than a simple majority. Amendment No. 24 asks for consultation with feeder primary schools about the move. Transition from community status to trust status is a substantial move. It is sufficiently substantial for the Government to feel that it is very important, because they are encouraging many schools to go down that route. It requires a substantial change in the governance of the schools, with far greater powers for the trustees appointed by the foundation.
We heard in the previous debate that the only governor to be elected to a foundation will be the single parent governor. No other governors are elected. One is a representative from the local education authority but apart from that, all the governors are appointed by the foundation. From having three or four elected parent governors and other representatives of communities on the board to a school being run by the foundation is a substantial change. Parents need to be consulted and to have their views taken into account.
The noble Lord, Lord Gould, said that we needed to know the precise electorate involved in the ballot. The amendment specifies that it would be the parents of registered pupils at the schools. We are saying quite precisely who shall be involved. It could be said that that is not a totally satisfactory electorate because it involves the future parents of pupils at a school, but as a proxy for who to go to, those most likely to be immediately affected by the change are the pupils at that school. It is therefore appropriate that their parents should be involved.
The Minister also claimed that we on these Benches are motivated by an antipathy towards trust schools. Yes—while we do not feel total antipathy towards trust schools, we certainly feel scepticism. It is all about structures; above all, we are unhappy about the contempt shown for democratic processes. I feel that the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Gould, are very offensive to the democratic processes within community schools. He argues that parents need more empowerment. Parents need to have a say. We referred to corporate law and to the fact that local authorities, when they take part in something corporate, have 20 per cent representation. When one company takes over another, it is put to the vote of all the shareholders. On this occasion, the Government are allowing the directors of the board to take the decision without putting it to the shareholders, who, we feel very strongly, should have a say.
We have tabled four amendments that relate to this matter. Amendment No. 22 asks specifically that the parents of registered pupils at the school should have a chance to participate in a ballot about the proposed change in the structure of the governance of the school. In Amendment No. 23, we are asking that the decision should be taken by a two-thirds majority of the governing board, not just by a simple majority. Again, that seems reasonable. The decision is on a very considerable change in the governance of the school, which would require the full support of the governing board, not just a very slim majority.
Amendment No. 24 asks for consultation—and consultation alone—with feeder primary schools. Amendment No. 38 asks only that there be a meeting and consultation with representatives of the parents of the school. With the exception of Amendment No. 23, these are extremely mild and perfectly reasonable amendments, and I hope that the Government will look sympathetically on them. I beg to move.
My Lords, in case the noble Baroness is in any doubt, let me declare myself at the outset to be a very proud democrat who has been to the fore in many of the arguments that we have had over the past few years on the case for substantial reforms towards greater democracy in society—including, I should stress, within schools. We have had very fruitful debates about the role of school councils and democracy inside schools, on which, I am glad to say, we have been at one with the Liberal Democrats. So we go quite a long part of the way together.
We part company on the specific issue of whether, in order to become a trust school, the school must itself hold a ballot of parents. There I am also glad to rely on the democratic mandate of the House of Commons. An amendment on ballot requirements similar to those in this amendment was defeated in the House of Commons by the extraordinarily large majority of 291, by 412 votes to 121 votes. Let me put it this way: the elected House held a ballot and voted against this proposal by a margin of over three to one in a very large Division. That should carry some weight with your Lordships about the role of democracy in the transition of schools to trust status.
The Bill sets out substantial requirements for consultation on changes of school status and organisation. A school wishing to change category or to acquire a trust needs to consult a range of local partners on these proposals. Regulations, which we have made available to noble Lords, list those who must be consulted. They specify,
"parents in the area who may be affected by the proposals, including parents of pupils at feeder primary schools and those living in, or who have children attending a school in the area of, an adjoining local education authority".
The governing body may then publish proposals, but must take account of any responses to the consultation and must operate within certain conditions set out by the regulations. These arrangements are consistent with established consultation procedures for other changes of status which fundamentally affect the character of a school, including changes to admissions arrangements and the addition or subtraction of sixth forms and special needs provision. Mandatory ballots are not required for such changes.
I should stress to the noble Baroness that many of those changes are much more profound than the move to a trust, which may appoint a minority of the governors—in some cases, only one or two, because of the nature of the trust relationship with the school in question. To have the rigid template that the noble Baroness envisages would not be sensible.
However, at its discretion a governing body has the right to hold a ballot, and it may well be appropriate for it to do so if the issue of moving to trust status was particularly controversial within the school community, for example. The governing body of a school may also choose to hold a public meeting of parents—it has absolute power to do so. But we do not believe it necessary to impose mandatory requirements in respect of either ballots or public meetings.
As for the electorate, I thought that the noble Baroness was remarkably frank when she said—and I wrote it down when she said it—that the electorate that she proposes in her amendment was not a totally satisfactory one. So the House needs to be clear that the noble Baroness is asking us to vote on a proposal which she herself describes as not totally satisfactory.
I agree with her that it is not totally satisfactory. In many cases when schools want to become trust schools, it will be because the school is profoundly failing and needs a very substantial boost and change of character if it is to become an attractive school in its community. As a Minister, I spend a lot of time visiting schools in that circumstance, and the greatest body of local parents who need to be engaged in the life of that school are not those of children who go to the school—because these schools often have very sharply declining rolls and small student populations—but the local body of parents who will not enrol their children in it until it is transformed and provides a satisfactory level of education for them. There are so many cases where that has happened that I do not believe the noble Baroness was in any way incorrect in describing her proposal as not totally satisfactory. I would, if I may, go slightly further and describe it as totally unsatisfactory, because it does not capture the range of partners who need to be engaged in the wider consultation within the community about whether a change of status of a school would help to boost opportunities and standards for the pupils who either attend that school or might attend it if it improved.
On Amendment No. 24, the list of persons who must be consulted according to regulations already includes other schools in the area,
"likely to be affected by the proposal".
This level of detail is more appropriate for regulations and, as the regulations already ensure that feeder primary schools must be consulted, I hope that the noble Baroness will be reassured.
Finally, on Amendment No. 23, we do not think it right that governing bodies should be required to act by a two-thirds majority. A governing body's decision would normally be by simple majority of those governors present, including in all the other decisions that I mentioned a moment ago. Therefore requiring a two-thirds majority when deciding on trust acquisition proposals would set a threshold which does not apply to any other decision by a governing body, including equally fundamental decisions such as engaging or withdrawing from special needs provision, and opening or closing sixth forms. We see no good justification for it.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply, but I point out to him that even the Conservatives, when they introduced grant-maintained schools, supported the idea of parental ballots for the change of status of schools. To argue as he does that this is not the democratic way to go is quite unnecessary.
The Minister quoted again, as he did in Committee, this business of the mandate from the House of Commons—that the vote was 412 to 121. Yes, it was, but that meant that 55 of his own side actually voted against that proposal in the House of Commons, so he did not actually have the full backing of his own party.
We are not really happy with the Minister's answer. We do not feel that it is a satisfactory situation. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
My Lords, we feel it perfectly reasonable that this very substantial change of status should require a two-thirds majority of the governing board, and we would like to test the opinion of the House.
moved Amendment No. 26:
Page 20, line 23, leave out from "which" to "or" in line 24 and insert-
"(i) proposals for the establishment of the school were implemented under Schedule 2, or (ii) proposals for the acquisition of a foundation, for a relevant change in the instrument of government or for a change of category to foundation school or foundation special school were implemented under regulations under section 24,"
My Lords, in moving this amendment, I wish to speak also to government Amendments Nos. 27 to 30. Government Amendments Nos. 26 to 30 relate to the removal of foundations. Clauses 25 to 27 provide for the governing bodies of certain foundation schools with foundations—trust schools—to publish proposals to remove the school's foundation. Otherwise it would be possible to terminate the relationship between a school and its foundation only by closing the school.
Amendments Nos. 26 and 27 correct deficiencies in the existing wording of the Bill. They clarify the circumstances in which a minority of the governors of a school may trigger the publication of proposals to remove the school's foundation. Amendments Nos. 28, 29 and 30 deal with arrangements for agreeing the transfer of land where a foundation is removed, and any associated compensation. This may be compensation in relation to capital expenditure incurred on school land or in relation to the value of the land itself. The effect of these amendments is to ensure that governing bodies have a full picture of the implications of removing a foundation when they are considering their proposals. They will eliminate the risk that a governing body may publish proposals that cannot subsequently be implemented.
Amendment No. 31 is intended to deal with those exceptional cases where a trust school is established on land provided by a foundation from private sources, and the foundation is removed. Such cases will be extremely rare. We are concerned here only with schools established after the Bill is enacted on land provided from private sources, either as trust schools or as voluntary schools which subsequently change category to become trust schools.
Where a foundation is removed, we would expect land held by the foundation to transfer to the school's governing body. In these circumstances, compensation may be payable to the trustees of the foundation. If the objects of the foundation extend beyond the purposes of the school from which the foundation is removed, the trustees may use any money that they hold for those other purposes. If they do not, and the trustees do not wish to use any money that they hold for the purposes of the school, they may apply to the Charity Commission to make a cy-pres scheme to vary the foundation's charitable objects.
Amendment No. 31 in this group, in the name of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth, would oblige the Charity Commission, when considering such an application, to treat the school from which the foundation had been removed as if it had been discontinued. It would prevent any money held by the trustees being used for the purposes of that school. The amendment also seeks to amend Section 554 of the 1996 Act, which gives the Secretary of State the power to make orders about the use of Church of England endowments.
We entirely recognise the right reverend Prelate's desire to ensure that endowments provided for the purpose of Church of England education should continue to be used for that purpose. But having given a good deal of consideration to the matter, the department cannot accept his amendment for the following reasons.
First, it will be open to the trustees of any foundation to apply to the Charity Commission through the normal route where they wish to vary the foundation's objects. The Charity Commission would consider each application on its individual merits, taking account of the purposes for which the foundation was originally set up and the change in circumstances which led to the application. We do not believe that it is right to seek to fetter the Charity Commission's discretion in considering such applications.
Secondly, there may be circumstances in which money held by a foundation might legitimately be used for the purposes of the school which removed the foundation. This might be the case where, for example, the land previously held by the foundation was originally provided for the purposes of education in a particular locality, or a school with a particular religious character. I should stress that a school may not lose its religious character simply by removing its foundation. So a Church of England school which removed its foundation would continue to be a Church of England school in the eyes of the law, and would still be subject to diocesan oversight by virtue of the Diocesan Boards of Education Measure 1991.
I should also explain that it would be open to the trustees of a foundation to take steps to protect the foundation's position before the foundation became subject to removal. Where the governing body of a voluntary school established after the Bill came into force wished to change category to foundation, which would make the school's foundation subject to removal, the governing body could publish proposals for such a change only with the trustees' consent. The trustees could either withhold their consent, or seek to vary the foundation's objects so that if it were subsequently removed, any money held by the foundation could be used for other purposes. Similarly, where it was proposed to establish a new trust school on the site of a former voluntary school, the trustees could also seek to vary the objects of the foundation before the school was established.
Government Amendments Nos. 45, 46 and 48 make explicit that the schools adjudicator has the powers to determine the public share of disposal proceeds where a school proposes to sell non-playing field land and the matter is referred to the adjudicator.
Clause 36 introduces Schedule 4, which amends Schedule 22 to the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, which protects public investment in non-playing field school land. The provisions of this Bill include that where a maintained school wishes to dispose of publicly funded non-playing field land it must inform its local authority, which can claim a share of the proceeds which are attributable to public investment. Where there is not local agreement, the matter can be referred to the schools adjudicator for determination.
However, we have not yet directly in the Bill given the adjudicator the power to determine what share of the disposal proceeds is attributable to public investment, and although it is implicit in the other powers he is given, we consider it safer to give him an explicit power in the Bill, which these amendments do.
Amendments Nos. 47, 49 and 50 correct errors of drafting, by inserting a missing word, and by correcting two cross-references.
I am glad to tell the right reverend Prelate that the Government propose to accept Amendments Nos. 51, 52 and 53. While we think that it is unlikely that any future Secretary of State would act to thwart the reasonable wishes of the trustees of a discontinued school to dispose of trustee land where it can no longer serve an educational purpose, we are aware that the major voluntary bodies are not so sanguine. To give them confidence that this Government do not aim to blight trustees' use of their own property, we are content to accept these amendments. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am very conscious that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth should be speaking to Amendments Nos. 31, 51, 52 and 53, but for reasons of which the House is well aware he cannot be with us today. Therefore, I shall speak to those amendments briefly.
I am enormously grateful for what the Minister said. I shall read carefully what he said in relation to Amendment No. 31. We need to be clear that the admittedly very unlikely circumstances will not arise where local Church of England school trustees would be left unable to apply the proceeds of sale for wider educational purposes in the diocese on a cy-pres basis. However, as I say, I shall read carefully what the Minister said. It is very important for us that that point should be clarified.
I am also very grateful to the Minister for accepting Amendments Nos. 51, 52 and 53, which tidy up a complication in connection with the disposal of land. I am grateful to the Minister's advisers for the discussions that we have had and for the understanding and help that we have received. I welcome the Minister's acceptance of those three amendments.
moved Amendment No. 28:
Page 21, line 12, leave out subsection (3) and insert-
"(3) Regulations under this section may in prescribed cases-
(a) require the governing body to ensure that matters relating to- (i) any transfer which may be required by virtue of subsection (2)(b) of section 27, or (ii) any payment which might be required by virtue of subsection (3) or (4) of that section, are agreed or determined before the proposals are published, and (b) enable or require any such matter to be referred to the adjudicator for determination before the proposals are published."
On Question, amendment agreed to.
Clause 27 [Proposals under section 25: implementation]:
moved Amendments Nos. 29 and 30:
Page 21, line 29, at end insert-
"(2A) Regulations made by virtue of subsection (2)(b) may make provision about any of the matters mentioned in section 24(5)(a) to (i)."
Page 22, line 1, leave out subsection (5).
On Question, amendments agreed to.
[Amendment No. 31 not moved.]
moved Amendment No. 32:
After Clause 28, insert the following new clause-
"REVIEW OF SPECIAL EDUCATIONAL NEEDS PROVISION
(1) The Secretary of State shall establish a review of special needs provision which shall-
(a) inquire fully into the reasons why special schools have closed; (b) seek the views of parents of children with special educational needs about provision and the way decisions affecting their child are made; (c) examine all categories of special educational needs.
(2) The composition of the review panel and its terms of reference shall be set out by order, and it shall report within six months of this Act coming into force."
My Lords, Amendments Nos. 32 and 33 go hand in hand. Amendment No. 32 calls for a total review of special educational needs provision, a full inquiry into the reasons why special schools have closed, a consideration of the views of parents of children with special educational needs and a thorough examination of all the categories of special educational needs. The amendment would also ensure that a review was completed within six months of the Bill being enacted. Amendment No. 33 places a moratorium on the closure of special needs schools until the review as designed in Amendment No. 32 has been carried out.
The Minister's words in Committee made for interesting re-reading. He stated:
"In fact, the proportion of pupils with statements in special schools has risen over the past five years".
He went on to say that that rise in proportion,
"demonstrates that there is no national policy of seeking to close special schools".—[Hansard, 5/7/06; col. 332.]
Yet, there is a missing link in that statement. I am afraid that the rise in statements for pupils with special educational needs does not in itself amount to national policy. As far as I am aware, the statementing process is not controlled from the Department for Education and Skills, so I do not see the link. If the Minister meant to commit to a national policy that will champion the continued existence of special schools and halt their closure until a full review has been undertaken, I would welcome that commitment wholeheartedly.
I make it absolutely clear that I recognise and applaud the achievements of all schools that provide an education for children with special needs in both mainstream and special schools. In providing for children with special needs they perform an increasingly demanding task, yet the system suffers from in-built flaws. First, there is the existing bias in legislation, which has led local authorities across the country to believe that they are required to opt for mainstream. Secondly, there is the statementing system, where it becomes increasingly clear that the funds do not follow the child. The Minister has admitted in his evidence to the Select Committee:
"As minister for special educational needs ... I would be the last person to claim that all is well in the system. Almost every day I deal with correspondence from members of the House about difficult individual cases, including complaints about both the quality of provision and the action of local authorities in assessing the needs of individual children".
Three major reports on SEN have been published in the past six months. There are 1,300,000 pupils in this country without statements who have special educational needs, according to the DfES statistics. They rely on our complicated system of statementing and inconsistent provision of special needs education. The SEN debate is gathering significant momentum. There is a real sense that some functions of the system are unacceptable, and real confusion among parents about how best to navigate that system. The representations to the Education and Skills Select Committee report were widely drawn and varied. The conclusions drawn by the University of Cambridge report, The Costs of Inclusion, were just as varied and searching. Yet I found myself disappointed by the Government's response to both those reports.
While both the Select Committee and the University of Cambridge reports advised the adoption of a national framework with local flexibility, the Government have declined even to investigate the option and declined to gather the empirical evidence that would provide a clear sense of the effectiveness of the statementing system and the effectiveness of SEN provision in the mainstream. As the Minister stated in Committee, the number of children with statements increases year on year. SEN is a part of our education system that is here to stay. Yet the Government's policy pledge of 2004, Removing Barriers to Achievement, tells us that,
"the proportion of children in special schools should fall over time".
Indeed, the Minister sought to reassure us on these Benches in Committee that the population of children in special schools is broadly static over recent years. But a glance at the figures tells us that since the 2004 policy paper, Removing Barriers to Achievement, that population has dropped by 2,400, the lowest it has been since 1997.
What is more, government guidance of 2001 Inclusive Schooling, states:
"The starting point is always that children who have statements will receive mainstream education".
If that does not constitute an assumption in favour of inclusion, I do not know what does. Yet the Minister has insisted on many occasions that Her Majesty's Government do not have such a policy. Action speaks louder than words.
The heart of the matter is that many pupils rely on special school education. There are also many who are served well in the mainstream. A bias against special schools is not only unfounded but unfair to those children who could benefit so much from the wholesale provision that those schools can offer. It is hard to ignore the evidence to the Select Committee which, in the report summary, stated that,
"an indiscriminate approach in implementing a policy of inclusion ... fails those vulnerable children who need support the most".
It is hard to ignore the evidence of schools in the The Costs of Inclusion report, where a year 1 teacher describes the anti-incentive of the statementing process:
"we can't really hit the high spots, achievement-wise for that child because then if we did that they wouldn't get the financial support".
Special schools are valuable and they are in demand. Amendment No. 33 would protect existing special schools until a fair and balanced SEN strategy has been prepared for the future. There is strong evidence to show that children with statements want to be taught in special schools. In 2003, more than 5,000 children with statements transferred from mainstream schools to special schools, and only 1,200 went in the other direction. The Disability Rights Commission stated last year that,
"many parents of disabled children have little confidence that mainstream schools will provide a safe environment where their children can reach their full potential".
Let me make it perfectly clear that I do not propose today to increase the number of special schools, nor do I propose to decrease the number of children with SEN in mainstream schools. What I do want to make clear is that the evidence shows us that special schools are successful and should be regarded as centres of excellence that pave the way in achieving in some of the most challenging areas of education. Yet 120 maintained SEN schools have closed since this Government came to power in 1997. Since the introduction of the Government's paper in 2004, Removing Barriers to Achievement, no fewer than 45 special schools have been closed. The number is far less in the private sector; clearly the demand for special school places remains. It seems that the private sector is, in so far as it can, redressing the balance of children who wish to be educated in special schools. I was shocked to discover that in the past four years the number of children with statements who are educated in special schools has dropped by 3,230, while 450 more children with statements are being taught in pupil referral units than in 2002.
It is clear that the Government's policy on paper, however well meaning, does not reflect the reality. I fear that the Government's response to the Select Committee's substantial report is little more than complacent. The committee proposed a national framework, to which the Government answered:
"The Government accepts such a framework is desirable ... it believes it is being built through the Every Child Matters Change programme".
But that programme is based around lists of outcomes not processes. On paper, the scheme is laudable, but as evidence from our Select Committee stated:
"While we feel strongly that local authorities should ensure that every child with ... SEN ... must have access to a diverse range of mainstream and specialist provision ... we do not believe that this is best achieved by a law that specifies outcomes. Rather, we believe it can be best achieved by a law that empowers parents to determine that outcome".
I could go on. We need a review of SEN provision, of statementing and of the planned relationships between special and mainstream schools, local authorities and, most importantly, parents. That is what these two important amendments are all about. Remember also that we are asking only for a moratorium for six months following the passing of this Bill. I beg to move.
My Lords, I do not propose to say a great deal about this, because I intend to say a lot more about the range of special needs provision when we come to the group that begins with Amendment No. 81; and I do not want to weary the House by saying it all twice. Your Lordships will have to be patient.
Although I have a great deal of sympathy with what the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, has said, we are not minded to support the amendment for a number of reasons. Of course, children with special needs are some of the most vulnerable children in our system, and of course their needs must be appropriately met. That word "appropriately" is very pertinent. There is more than one way of meeting those needs appropriately and in the best interests of the child; and that phrase must be at the heart of our discussions.
There may be some considerable benefit in having a review of the statementing process and the way in which resources are directed towards the child. The Minister will have heard us talk many times about how that can be achieved—with pupil premiums and by directing additional assistance to those children who really need it in the schools that they attend. Those may be mainstream schools and there are many examples of where properly resourced mainstream schools can provide education in the best interests of children with special needs.
It is the emphasis of the noble Baroness's review that we do not support, particularly where she asks that it,
"seek the views of parents of children with special educational needs".
We do not think that one should not do that. Of course one should, but it is not possible to close a special school without obtaining those views—and I do not know any local authority that would not. There would be an outcry if it tried to get away with not taking on board the views of those parents. Closing a special school is of enormous interest to the parents of the children attending the school and those children who may attend it in future. They will certainly make their views heard. I do not know of a local authority that would not be forced to hear those views, even if it was unwilling, which most are not.
If the Minister can reassure us that he will have a careful look at the way the statementing process works—it is too bureaucratic and stressful for children—and at the way resources are directed towards the children who need them most, we will not support the amendment. If he cannot give us that assurance, perhaps we may reconsider.
My Lords, I certainly support the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, and if my noble friend Lady Warnock had been here—sadly, she had to leave as she had another appointment—she would have even more passionately supported both amendments in the group, particularly Amendment No. 32.
From what I have seen on recent visits to special schools, there is a clear demand for them beyond that which is provided for. The result has been that children who are seen to need such places have had to be bussed long distances and so on. I would be in favour of the mainstream sector coping with as many pupils with special needs as possible and of the choice both of the parents and of the child being firmly taken into account—remember that these days we are very keen on hearing the views of the child in all these matters.
However, major closures have taken place and the enthusiasm for new forms of dealing with problems tends to get a bit out of control, the momentum goes on and on, and suddenly you perhaps realise that there was some point to the old system and that you need to think again about it. The two amendments would provide just what is needed in that respect and provide time for a hard look at what is happening.
In reference to the Question asked earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Morris, the gathering together of the human rights of people with disabilities applies at least as much to the whole subject of education as it does to the specific area that he referred to. Please—I hope that this issue will be taken seriously. I would like the Government to accept the amendments, because we need to take an urgent look at the whole situation. The Secretary of State would still be allowed to make exceptions, although I am a bit nervous about the inclusion of that provision.
My Lords, I support in principle the amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, and declare an interest as grandfather of a grandson with special educational needs who is currently going through a statementing process. I am in the privileged position of having the time, resources and networking to try to understand that complex process, but I worry about those families who do not have such time or resources to try to find a route through this often confusing maze of statementing in trying to find the best for their children. I have found it difficult to help to find a route map for my grandson in considering schools and special schools. It remains a confusing area, even for those who are best placed to find a way through it. I encourage the Minister to consider these amendments and, at least, to think about a review of statementing, the provision of special schools and so on.
My Lords, I, too, support these amendments on the ground that they are timely. There is no doubt that there have been benefits for many children from the switch of direction and the focus on moving into mainstream schools, but the momentum of the changes is now significant and it is timely to review the system. I have visited a number of schools and have seen that some perverse incentives are now being built into the system, so that schools perhaps start to do what is their interests rather than what is in the interest of the individual.
My Lords, I have been a governor of a special EBD school and I have done much work with children with emotional and behavioural difficulties. When the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, as Secretary of State, put through the Education Bill that gave rise to the big reduction in special schools, I fought it, because I believed that the Government were doing that to save money. I honestly think that it is difficult to treat this problem objectively, because there is a lot of money involved.
I think that I shall support the Opposition's amendment, because there is a need for an independent look at this problem free from political bias. The opposition Benches are bold in bringing forward their proposal; they may be hoisted by their own petard if they were to take over the government of the country. The sort of processes that such an inquiry might introduce could lead to substantial increases in the amount of money that needs to be spent on special needs children—because it is needed.
That is a different issue from the statementing process, which was a disaster when I was involved with it. Local authorities were delaying it because they knew that once children were statemented they would have to spend the money on looking after those children.
My Lords, I support the principle of the amendment in the light of my experience of such cases at the Bar and the fact that I managed to put, by amendment, special educational needs provisions into the Act, with the aid of Lady Blatch. The amendment would enable something to happen in practice about a practical defect that needs to be addressed. I apologise to the House for speaking without having been present earlier.
My Lords, the amendments focus on the role of special schools. As the Minister responsible for special schools and special educational needs, I should say at the outset that there is no category of schools in our educational system that performs a more valuable or important role than special schools. Special schools often offer the only opportunity that pupils with moderate or severe learning difficulties will ever have for a decent start in life. They have exceptionally good specialist resources that they are able to make available. The Government have no policy whatever of favouring the closure of special schools. Our policy is that the interests of local children must come first, and local authorities, which have a duty to make decisions in this regard, must, as they are required to do under the Education Act 1996, take full account of the needs of pupils in their area in arranging the pattern of provision between schools.
Perhaps I may back that up, because in my experience there is no better testament to whether the Government take something seriously than whether they are prepared to put money behind it. It is wrong to say that we are not putting resources into either special educational needs at large, on which there has been an almost 50 per cent increase in resources over the past five years, or special schools in particular. Perhaps I may give the House the statistics for special schools. Spending on special schools that are maintained by local authorities has increased since 2000 from £890 million to £1.3 billion. That is a huge increase to enable the quality of provision in those schools to improve. In addition to that £1.3 billion, we spend £506 million on fees for pupils at independent special schools. That figure is up from £287 million in 2000. So there has been considerable public investment in sustaining and improving special schools in recent years, and we stand by them.
Another material factor is the fact that the proportion of pupils with statements who attend special schools has risen over the past three years, and the raw figures on the closure of special schools, of which the noble Baroness has made much, are very misleading. At the local level, we are seeing a good deal of reconfiguration of special educational needs provision in order to improve it. That often includes the amalgamation of special schools that are on totally unsatisfactory sites because there has not been the required investment over recent years, or the establishment of units attached to mainstream schools, of which a significant number have opened in recent years. In addition to the 80,000 pupils who attend special schools, 20,000 are located in units that have the same quality of special needs provision but are attached to mainstream schools. That has been a big area of development in recent years.
There is also resourced provision, by which I mean specialist provision in respect of particular special educational needs provided in mainstream schools. Resourced provision in mainstream schools has increased significantly in both quality and quantity in recent years. Perhaps I may quote Ofsted's judgment in its report, which was published only in July, on the different forms of special educational needs provision. Its conclusions are very pertinent to the discussion that we are having today. It said that there was,
"little difference in the quality of provision and outcomes for pupils across primary and secondary mainstream schools and special schools. However, mainstream schools with additionally resourced provision"— that is, mainstream schools with funding specifically to develop specialist special needs provision—
"were particularly successful in achieving high outcomes for pupils academically, socially and personally".
We are supporting the capacity of local authorities, taking account of the interests of their localities, to develop their provision, whether in units, in special schools, which may be reconfigured or brought together, or within mainstream schools. We do not believe that a moratorium on the closure of special schools at present or an inquiry of the kind envisaged by the noble Baroness, which would have the effect of throwing in flux our whole policy on special educational needs, would be desirable.
I shall finish dealing with Amendment No. 32 by turning to the question of an inquiry. When I became a Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Baker, a former Secretary of State, gave me very good advice. He said that my starting action when considering any issue relating to education policy should be to read the relevant Ofsted report. I have taken that advice to heart, and I always follow it when considering any issue. We have just gone through an exhaustive inquiry with the House of Commons Select Committee on special educational needs, and, as the noble Baroness said, we responded to it in full last week. Ofsted's strong advice to us was not to conduct a fundamental review at present, only two years after the publication of our major policy statement, Removing Barriers to Achievement, which includes an important continuing role for special schools. I shall quote Ofsted's advice to the Select Committee:
"If we had a big review at this time, the danger is that it would diversify work, resources and developments in such a way that it could send us back to the point of the slow progress that we were having prior to 2004".
That was the judgment of Ofsted. Brian Lamb, the highly respected chair of the Special Educational Consortium, said the same to us. After we had published our response to the Select Committee, he said that the SEC was very pleased that the DfES had renewed its commitment to its 10-year strategy in Removing Barriers to Achievement. He said:
"We don't need a radical review. We want to make the system work better. There are lots of things here that will help with that".
Finally, if I may, I shall quote the judgment of Treehouse, which, as noble Lords will know, is the national charity for autism education and whose president is, I believe, the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones. It runs the outstanding school in north London for children on the autistic spectrum. When we published our response to the Select Committee, it issued a press release saying that it agreed with the conclusion of the Government, Ofsted and the Special Educational Consortium that the existing evidence does not support a wholesale review of the SEN system or structural reorganisation of local authority commissioning.
So I believe that we have a substantial body of inspectorate and respected professional opinion behind us in developing our policies in the way that we are, including substantial additional investments. However, I am constantly mindful of the need to keep the existing system under review and to improve it.
The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, asked me particularly about the statementing process. We considered very carefully whether there was a case for the wholesale replacement of the process, but we decided that that would not be appropriate at present as no proposals have come forward, and none has come forward in our intensive internal consideration that offer a better prospect than the statementing process at large as a way of allocating resources for those with high levels of special educational needs.
However, our advisers are working constantly with local authorities to promote best practice in statementing. We want to see much more joint working between local authorities, for example, in the commissioning of provision and in the way in which they manage the statementing process to ensure that outcomes are improved. As the noble Baroness will know, we recently commissioned an audit of low-incidence special educational needs—an area of particular pressure within the special needs community. Our report on that has led to a substantial body of work in joint commissioning between local authorities and to approaches that will improve outcomes of pupils who are statemented and the operation of the statementing process.
We are very mindful of the need constantly to improve the statementing process and to accelerate the speed with which local authorities deal with statements. There has now been a significant improvement in that but, in response to the Select Committee, we set out new performance indicators that we wish to agree with the Local Government Association to accelerate the issuing of statements and the proper consideration of professional reports, which are essential to the production of statements. So we are constantly seeking to improve the system and we will look at all reasonable proposals to do so.
However, we do not believe that a fundamental review at present, contrary to the advice of Ofsted and the other professional bodies that I have cited, would be in the best interests of children with special educational needs. Elected local authorities take their responsibilities very seriously in this area, and we think that removing their discretion to improve the arrangements for special educational needs by changing the pattern of local provision, in the way envisaged by Amendment No. 33, would work against, and not in favour of, the interests of children with special educational needs.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. I also thank all noble Lords who have supported these amendments, including a former Chief Inspector of schools. I feel strongly about these amendments. Perhaps I can quote from the Select Committee report, in which one of the Minister's DfES officials said:
"Certainly Lord Adonis is looking for a review of certain aspects of special educational needs and ministers collectively want to look at a 'third way'".
The committee said that there must be access to a wide range of mainstream and specialist provision and that,
"we do not believe that this is best achieved by a law that specifies outcomes".
The Government's response was that the best way of improving outcomes for children with SEN and disabilities is through sustained action to build the capacity of the system. We need a thorough review in order to build that system.
I have not at any stage suggested that the Government are not taking this seriously and are not committing resources and, therefore, public investment to the SEN system, but the system has serious faults. Parents feel that they are ignored when local special schools are closed. I feel that a thorough review of the system is essential to achieve our aim. All I am asking for is a brief period in which to take stock and to consider carefully how we develop a sustainable system to meet the growing need for SEN provision. Surely the whole system of statementing goes to the heart of that. I hope that noble Lords agree. I wish to test the opinion of the House.
My Lords, I beg to move that consideration on Report be now adjourned. In moving the Motion, I suggest that the Report stage begin again not before 2.43 pm.